Women Wonder if They'll Ever Feel Safe Again

Up a rubble-strewn street, turn right past a crumbled house, and 60 men and women are in the yard and parlor of the offices of the Commission of Women Victim-to-Victim (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, KOFAVIV) association.

The women are members of KOFAVIV, and they live in the squalid refugee camps and some of the capital's toughest and poorest neighbourhoods. Today, they each brought along a male friend for a workshop on how to prevent violence.

Dressed in their Sunday best, the participants joked and jostled as they broke into groups.

"Happy New Year!" said one young woman with huge hoop earrings, but then she corrected herself - "No, I won't say 'happy,' but I'll say, 'good health to you.'"

As the discussions started up, smiles melted away.

"Okay, let's make a list. What do we have at the Runway Camp?" asked an older woman who lives in a tent on the runway of Haiti's former military airport. "Okay, robbery, youth prostitution, rape, domestic violence and verbal abuse."

"Well, that's what we have in our camp too," said a young girl in blue jeans and a spaghetti strap top.

A man wearing a perfectly ironed white shirt interjected, "Okay, but what are we going to do about it?"

A full year after a 7.0 earthquake in Haiti obliterated 230,000 lives, injured 300,000 and rendered a quarter of the population homeless, Haitian women are now weathering a second catastrophe.

In the 2,000 makeshift displaced persons camps clustered across the country, women and girls are caught in the midst of an onslaught of sexual abuse, savage beatings and heinous crimes against humanity.

Two million people are still crammed into enclosures, which have become microcosms of pre-earthquake patterns of the gross income inequality, social exclusion and abject poverty that has plagued Haiti for centuries.

A report released Thursday by Amnesty International lays bare the appalling conditions in which Haitian women are forced to live - the paltry shelters in the open-air camps seldom comprise anything more than flimsy tents, or tarps stretched over a patch of earth.

According to the report, "Aftershocks: Women Speak Out Against Sexual Violence in Haiti's Camps", over 250 rapes, in various camps, were reported a mere 100 days after the earthquake first struck. Many women and girls have been raped multiple times, often by several different men at once. Virtually every victim has also been beaten and tortured.

Medical and sanitary conditions in the camps are appalling; women and girls are forced to bathe in public and walk long distances to communal toilets at night. A total absence of privacy, lighting or solid barriers against perpetrators leaves even girls as young as 12 and 13 years old entirely vulnerable to the wave of sexual violence, most of which occurs after dark, the report says.

"Women's organisations on the ground helped us access the victims," Kerrie Howard, a Haiti expert at Amnesty International, told IPS. "Because the camps are a very closed community, it's extremely difficult for women and girls to speak out."

One of Amnesty's key local partners, and arguably the most active organisation working through the crisis, is KOFAVIV.

"At KOFAVIV we believe in education and we believe in preventing violence before it happens," Jocie Philistin, KOFAVIV's project coordinator, told IPS. "All of our members are survivors who are rehabilitated, and we are now trying to help others. And the solution doesn't lie with women only. We need men and women to work together."

But neighbourhood watch patrols and training sessions aren't the only answer, Philistin admits.

"Violence has two aspects - one is poverty, meaning it's economic. The other is politics," she said.

Whenever there is political turmoil or the economy worsens, violence against women increases. Rape has been used as a political weapon. Young people, especially girls, trade sex for a meal or a roof over their heads.

Now, one year after the quake, KOFAVIV admits a sense of hopelessness.

"In the camps, in the communities, things have gotten worse," Philistin said. "We have a completely absent state, we have NGOs who are in the camps mostly for public relations and they aren't even allowed to work in the 'red zone' areas, which are the most dangerous neighbourhoods."

A ray of hope

In early October, a coalition of prominent legal and social justice groups, including MADRE, the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti and the Bureaux des Advocats Internationaux filed a formal request with the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of 13 Haitian women and girls.

On Tuesday, the IACHR accepted the request and issued unprecedented recommendations to the Haitian government, which are binding under Haitian national law.

The measures include providing medical and psychological care such as emergency contraception and culturally sensitive female medical staff members; implementing effective security measures like street lighting and increased patrolling by security forces; and, perhaps most importantly, ensuring the full participation and leadership of grassroots women's groups in planning and implementing policies to combat the sexual violence.

Lisa Davis, the human rights advocacy director of MADRE, was the primary author of the request.

"We have been working with women's groups in Haiti since the rape crisis in the 1990s," Davis told IPS. "And we consult with our local partners every step of the way."

While Haitian women are of course concerned with long-term political changes that address the root causes of sexual violence and the blows of patriarchy, the need for immediate safety now trumps all, she said.

In a report entitled "Our Bodies Are Still Trembling: Haitians Women's Fight Against Rape", the parties of the IACHR request record in chilling detail testimony from women and girls in the camp. Women as old as 60 and as young as eight or nine have all been subjected to unspeakable cruelty which has increased sharply since the 2010 elections.

"We have reports of men going into camps and randomly shooting women who were wearing politically-charged t- shirts," Davis said.

"Every single woman I talked to said what she wants more than anything is housing," she stressed. "And if they can't get that - because it's not being offered to them right now - then they want to feel safe."

[Source: By Jane Regan and Kanya D'Almeida, IPS, Port-Au-Prince and New York, 06Jan11]

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